Moscow Through An Artist’s Eyes

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My closest friend from Montenegro, Biljana Kekovic, visited me here and i was treated to an extraordinary experience – i got to see Moscow like i never did before, through the eyes of an artist. I’ve been living here for four years, i’ve seen countless images of the city and i read all i could find on it – from historical memoirs  and tourist’s guides to classics and contemporary SF where the plot is set in Moscow, but experiencing it  with Biljana opened my eyes to a new perspective, to a view which grasps the unusual, the hidden, that which normally escapes our attention… Here they are, for you to enjoy, some of the photograph’s Biljana took while in Moscow:

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 Montenegrins in Moscow: with artists Biljana Kekovic (first to left) and Vaso Nikcevic

(I bet this is not how you imagined the September weather in Russia’s capital! ;))

p.s. Since September 10th, i am officially Dr Ruth, it was on that day that i defended my thesis.

Brave Old Worlds — A European Short-Fiction Sampler

moderndayruth:

“Brave Old Worlds” – an upbeat review of Dalkey Archive Press’ Best European Fiction 2014

Originally posted on MAGGIE CLARK:

Best European Fiction 2014
Drago Jančar / Aleksandar Hemon
Dalkey Archive Press

I have a weakness for this series, which every year reminds me what range of storytelling strategies still exists, despite trends in North American literature towards tales crafted by committee, which routinely leave unscathed all our culture’s unspoken, but no-less-sacred cows.

This is not to say that I consider North American literature inferior, but I do tire of the same beats and tropes and affinities replayed in story after story: the disaffected urban, middle-class, mid-life narrative that explores minor moments of confusion and embarrassment between partners real or imagined while foreign events or regional histories play out in the margins; the late-20s bildungsroman where protagonists try to find meaning in their circumstances, their personal actions ever-justified by heavily telegraphed backstories and other forms of self-conscious, please-excuse-my-characters interiority; the narrative staged around friends, families, or other close communities that…

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Dusha, Toska, Sud’ba: Russian Culture in its Key Words

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Yesterday in the evening i was gazing at the setting sun from the porch of my friends’ suburban home. The sun sets very late in Moscow. Over here, Shabbat candles, which mark the beginning of the Day of Rest, are lit some two hours later than in the NYC. As i am inhaling the scent of black earthchernozem, sprinkled by the ephemeral spring rain, i am starting to feel something, which Russians call toska.

As Vladimir Nabokov puts it, “Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ is Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness. No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
I couldn’t explain in any other language what i feel and, more so, why i am feeling it. In my own culture, such inexplicable lonesome inner wandering is neither understood nor welcomed – and rightly so, Balkan sensuality, our history and the mountains around inspire an all another range of emotions.

I don’t know what i’d call that feeling in English either – and probably no need to label it at all because i don’t feel it out of Russia. Here, my friend Lily glances at me and, without hesitation, diagnoses my state with a verse by Mikhail Lermontov :

It’s boring and sad, and there’s no one around

In times of my spirit’s travail.

It’s not that she or i will do something  about it. Toska is acceptable here, it comes and goes on its own liking and it’s not that you can do much about about it anyway. Toska is not a debilitating sadness or a severe depression – you can be hit by it and go about your everyday business. It’s only that you won’t smile all that much. Smiling isn’t a norm here anyway, so that’s OK too. Other external expressions of toska are prolonged, deep breaths and a specific hand waving gesture which conveys an almost audible “don’t ask…”

Polish Australian linguist Ana Wierzbicka considers toska, along with sud’ba and dusha, to be the key concept of Russian culture.

Sud’ba would be fate in its most passive understanding and dusha  is Russian word for soul, to which way more is ascribed in this culture, than in any other. Wierbicka notices that “dusha” is used in numerous, if not all, sayings and expressions where in English we’d say ” mind”. Russian soul also gets blamed for a myriad of things for which in other languages we blame our vanity, silliness or even lust.

Wierbicka is popular in Russia – to the extent to which a linguist can be popular, you can feel from her work that she is fascinated with this culture and that she, like me and pretty much all the foreigners here, does love it, albeit most of the times it is beyond our understanding. At the predefence of my own Phd thesis, the famed professor Alla Yuryevna Konstantinovna asked me: Do you agree with Wierbicka that the language itself and its key concepts make Russians passive? I don’t. I am not even sure Wierbicka sees it as passivity, she speaks more of a Russian fatalistic attitude towards life itself. That’s how she sees it and maybe, just maybe, it could be explained by some tenants of Christian Orthodoxy (versus the presumed Protestant proactive attitude towards pretty much everything.)

To me all of it could be explained geographically – or, better to say, located, if not explained. The farther you go to the East, towards Asia, the more you’ll feel it – this acceptance of the things as they are and you’ll observe certain (more or less) patient awaiting of the circumstances to change, more and more, as you progress to the East and Far East. Maybe it has to do with the language, maybe with the weather – or we could blame it all on dusha, the black earth and that special scent that birch trees emit in the spring…

20140509_103328 20140509_103442 20140509_124856 20140509_124955 20140509_132000 20140509_132020With Lily, Ilya, Sasha and Ksyuha on Victory Day, May 9th, round and about Moscow city (Arbatskaya street, Mikhail Sholohov monument and the wall on Arbat street dedicated to the memory of Viktor Tsoi.) Graffiti on the wall translates as: He/she who is not forgotten, he is immortal.

For Arlen, Dianne, Amras, John, Jessica and a ‘silly petite woman’

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I’ve been ‘missing in action’ and, besides to Bonnie Cehovet, with whom we are friends even before WP and (thus) keep in touch via other media & social networks, i think i owe you all a long explanation and an excuse…

I didn’t give up on WP, i was trying to post here and there so you’d know i am alive and kicking, as the saying goes, but last couple of months were indeed the craziest period of my life.

I am well, thanks Goodness, but with work, it’s been… Ugh! I’ll try to reconstruct in chronological order what’s been going on (luckily, all are good news, but in full seriousness i hardly had the time to sleep, not to mention other stuff.)

So, firstly, my doctoral thesis is finished, i’ve spent four months in Moscow and by the end of this week i am going there again for the pre-defense. The ‘finish’ nearly killed me i must say, i am used to hard work, but this was too much even for me.

My short story ‘The New Testament’ is included into Dalkey Archive Press’ Best European Fiction series, featured in The New York TimesThe Guardian and so on.

You can imagine what excitement surrounded the selection in my native Montenegro, we are a tiny, quite homogeneous nation and when one of us makes an achievement it is celebrated on a national level; long story made short – i spent a month or so giving interviews and answering congratulations letters.

Then, my new collection of poems The Color of Change (link to a review in Montenegrin), illustrated by one of the most renowned contemporary Montenegrin artists, Biljana Kekovic was published and launched.

I was a guest of numerous tv shows, among  most popular and region- wide watched being Atlas TV primetime show ‘Signs by the roadside’ hosted by internationally acclaimed novelist and a friend of mine, Ksenija Popovic:

(You can watch the show on youtube, in our language.)

Unrelated to writing engagements, i had the honor to interpret during visits of foreign officials to my country:

 on official visit: president of Bulgaria H.E. Mr Rosen Plevneliev in Montenegro, with our head of state H.E. Mr Filip Vujanovic


on official visit: president of Bulgaria H.E. Mr Rosen Plevneliev in Montenegro, with our head of state H.E. Mr Filip Vujanovic

Last but not the least, with prominent Montenegrin poetess and my dear friend Tanja Bakic, on behalf of Dragana Tripkovic (scroll down for her bio in English) and Jelena Nelevic-Martinovic in Zagreb, Croatia we launched the very first anthology of Montenegrin poetry written by women: Koret on the asphalth (chief editor – Danilo Ivezic, authors: Tanja Bakic, Lena Ruth Stefanovic, Dragana Tripkovic, Jelena Nelevic Martinovicč published by National Association of Montenegrins of Croatia and Skaner Studio, Zagreb 2013.)

Croatian literary critic Darija ZIlic speaking at the launch of Koret on the Asphalt (left to right: Darija ZIlic, Tanja Bakic, L.R. Stefanovic, Danilo Ivezic - the editor of the anthology

Croatian literary critic Darija ZIlic speaking at the launch of Koret on the Asphalt (left to right: Darija Zilic, Tanja Bakic, L.R. Stefanovic, Danilo Ivezic – one of the leaders of Montnegrin Diaspora and the editor of the anthology.)

Our amazing host – Božidar Petrač, president of the Croatian Writers’ Association:

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Montenegrin Diaspora - Council of the Montenegrin National Minority in the City of Zagreb and National Association of Montenegrins of Croatia

Montenegrin Diaspora – Council of the Montenegrin National Minority in the City of Zagreb and National Association of Montenegrins of Croatia

For your enjoyment, i’d like to end this ‘post up’ with magical verses of Jelena Nelevic Martinovic, which i believe reflects the spirit of numerous Montenegrin female voices, united as one:

“ I am neither the size of my hips,

nor the measurements of my breast,

I am not the color of my eyes

neither am i the perfect ratio

between inches and pounds…

The difference is that I is the one who penetrates,

While off me all the things bounce of.”

J.N.M.

Some of my dearest WP friends, in no particular order:

Arlen

Dianne

John, the magician from the Bartolini kitchens

Amras

a wise, great and marvelous woman with a camera

Jessica

and, of course:

Bonnie Cehovet

Montenegrin coast from dusk ’till dawn

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To make it up for my absence from WP – after the images and words on Russian winter – here is an eye candy of another kind for you to enjoy. I was on a work trip on the coast and had very little free time so the pictures are taken late in the afternoon and early in the morning, when i made it out of the hotel and away from the duty. The pictures were taken at The Budva Riviera and at the Bay of Kotor, hope you’ll like them.

The Outsider’s Five Coins

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Father dearest recently made as non-PC comment as it gets; being a pro politician who more so had intermarried way before it was the thing to do, he actually said-while bursting into laughter: (insert the F-word) it turns out Montenegrin literature is written mainly by Jews, Greeks and Turks! He was referring to ethnic background of some of our most acclaimed contemporary writers, myself being included too… Now, some people can get away with anything – and my father, who was a dissident during wars in former Yugoslavia, had quit a lucrative career in federal ministry of foreign because he opposed back then ruling politics of ethnic and religious intolerance, he who had emigrated, had actively participated in resistance to Milosevic’s disastrous politics and who significantly contributed to the dictator’s overthrow – he can crack a joke like that and get away with it. The thing is that he is right too – at least a half of our most prominent contemporary writers belong to ethnic minorities whereas the rest in their biographies state either growing up abroad or spending prolonged periods of time out of the old country. In full honesty, no wonder it is so – very often, to become a writer, one needs to be an outsider – at least in some way and at least for certain period of time. See, if you grew up in certain surroundings, if you spent your formative years in the same neighborhood,  if you never changed schools, friends and even countries and languages – you can be tricked to perceive it all as ‘normal’, regular, just the way it should be. And it is so – communities and societies have their own little worlds with their own customs, traditions, verbal etiquette, dress  codes and what not, which groups of people develop when sharing the same geo-economic space over prolonged period of time. We can thank the  painful process of acculturation for some of the best classical and contemporary novels – and in particular the novels by American Jewish writers of the first generation, such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, who filled their narrative with stories of assimilation. (Luckily the “trend” is over by now and the The New Yiddishist happily integrate various cultural components into their own selves as well as into their writing.)

After a personal exodus from what once was Yugoslavia, after the country had fallen apart and we remained without nationality and mother-tongue, i got lucky to end up in proverbially tolerant Montenegro where i can explore the bits and pieces of my own background and write of the complex puzzle those add up to, without ever getting slurred.

My first book, The Archetype of Miracles, is collection of essays written from 1996 to 2005, which reflect the adaptation to my reacquired homeland. I was raised as a Montenegrin, having never really lived in the old country; when my family had moved back to where my paternal ancestors lived for centuries – to my amazement, as much as i felt i belong there, i discovered i was… well, an outsider.

My identifying with Montenegrin people came from the stories of heroic battles i was told in the childhood, from national dishes my non-Montenegrin mother learned to make majestically and from the long summers spent in the magical Black Mountains… There is that joke of the guy who, having kept the free will after death, got to choose himself between the Heaven and Hell. As the story goes, Heaven turned out to be meekish somehow, very nice, but quite boring whereas the two week independent travel to Hell felt as an exciting adventure; upon having chosen the Hell for his permanent residence, all the excitement was gone and the poor chap was placed in a notorious boiling cauldron. On his kvetching that it wasn’t what was promised and expected, the host with horns and tail laughingly replied: Oh, i see, you confused tourism with emigration!

My own experience was more or less like that too and being cooked in the cauldron of adaptation for a decade or so resulted in five books so far.

When you happen to be of some world, yet for one reason or another out of it – willingly or not you become an observer and eventually, given that you don’t know a single soul close enough so to share your impressions, you start writing.

“These men are in prison: that is the Outsider’s verdict. They are quite contented in prison—caged animals who have never known freedom; but it is prison all the same. And the Outsider? He is in prison too: nearly every Outsider in this book has told us so in a different language; but he knows it. His desire is to escape. But a prison-break is not an easy matter; you must know all about your prison, otherwise you might spend years in tunnelling, like the Abbe in The Count of Monte Cristo, and only find yourself in the next cell.”  Colin Wilson, The Outsider

Osho Zen Tarot, The Outsider (Five of Pentacles)  Osho Zen Tarot Copyright© 2012, OSHO International Foundation

Osho Zen Tarot, The Outsider (Five of Pentacles) Osho Zen Tarot Copyright© 2012, OSHO International Foundation

In Osho Zen, the Suit of Rainbows corresponds to traditional Tarot’s Suit of Coins/ Pentacles; the Fives in Tarot denote difficulties and struggles and Five of Pentacles/Coins usually denotes  (ephemeral, but still) feeling of isolation and insecurity.

Related articles:

Daily Prompt: The Outsiders

Ginger’s Grocery: Crashing the Party

Not Quite Home: Outsiders Grace

Nicole Sloan’s Writing: The Outsiders

Gate By Mara Eastern

Casseroles and Condolences By fieldofthorns

You can’t get Russia with your mind

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Some century and a half ago Fyodor Tyutchev, one of the greatest poets of Russian Romanticism wrote a quatrain that with time became proverbial:

You cannot grasp Russia with your mind 
Or judge her by any common measure, 
Russia is one of a special kind –
You can only believe in her.
(translation via Russkiy mir)

Celebration of the New Year is one of those occasions when i become aware of this truth even more than usually – you can’t get Russia with your mind (or with with any other of your brain functions for that matter.)

Right, we know it all – that New Year madness has roots in various Pagan festivals, that during communism it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas and the symbolic of the two Holidays were switched and traded off… Still, none of it explains the contagious fanaticism with which majority of Russians ‘sees off the old year’ and greets the new. (In Russian language it’s literally ‘seeing off’ the old year and ‘meeting’ the new one, mind you.)

There are countless traditions to be observed before the Holiday and within its course – from paying off all your debts, via tiding your home generally to asking forgiveness from the people you hurt  and what not.

Couple of weeks leading to December 31st we are having an extended  “Black Friday” over here – the amount of shopping that’s done is intimidating and overwhelming, yet it can’t be avoided; see, it’s a must because you simply have to give gifts to as much people as possible and you have to  buy tons of stuff for yourself as well… Among else, you have to stock up on food because it’s an 8 day long public holiday and the stores are closed at least until January the 3d. (In case you’ve skipped that, like i did, you’ll be living exclusively on chocolate and cookies which are gifted generously in the spirit of the season – you can’t get any other food in this time, unless you’ve provided for yourself in advance.)

Thus one of the NY traditions is to watch ad nauseum the movie Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath, a romantic comedy from 1976 on which importance for Russian people even some serious books were written – see  Olga Fedina’s book, What Every Russian Knows (And You Don’t)

“Foreigners who spend years mastering classical Russian grammar and getting used to the rapid-fire slangy exchanges of contemporary spoken Russian need one more thing: a personal cultural guide. We dream of someone who will take us by the hand and explain why a 30-year-old film is still watched by the whole family every New Year’s Eve, whisper the allusions to films in the jokes our co-workers are making, and help us understand how a traditional fairy tale shaped our friends’ characters and sense of morality” says the author and i couldn’t agree more with her.

In those three hours that movie lasts you get a glimpse into Russia’s drinking culture – and if you are from the West or from Balkans like i am, i bet you that you won’t get it (i know i don’t – out of first ninety minutes of the first sequel, some 25 min are devoted to provision and consumption of alcohol); you’ll get an insight into the notorious pressure to which Russian women are subjugated to marry and have family (almost 30 years later hardly anything changed there); besides, you’ll see what a Russian banya stands for and maybe you’ll understand why Russian people attend it with a religious devotion (i confess i don’t get that either.) Mind you, these are just first 30 minutes of the movie which can’t be re-told, but can be watched on youtube with English subtitles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVpmZnRIMKs

Another NY custom, which goes observed with religious-like fanaticism, is the traditional Russian zastolye – at least six courses and several hours long  meal accompanied by unlimited quantities of alcohol and countless toasts to health and honor of the participants. Some of the ‘ritual foods’ are pickled herring, caviar, Olivier salad, mandarines and all of it seems to be deeply rooted in pre-Christian observances and connection to the departed ancestors; anyway it is, by now zastolye is an essential part of Russian way of living which, being a foreigner, you’ll never ever understand.

I pulled a card from my Véritable Tarot de Marseille and it was 3 of Wands/ Bâtons:

Le Véritable Tarot de Marseille

Le Véritable Tarot de Marseille

It’s a plain in imagery card – three wands are interlocking, leaves curling out from the intersection – yet it’s meaning, tied to the Empress and the Suit of Fire, is rich and promising; the card usually denotes the awaiting of goodness and abundance which somehow we happen to know is just about to arrive…

On that note, i am wishing you a Happy New Year, may it be as joyous, abundant and fulfilling, as Russian zastolye is ;)

Let’s talk about the Tower, baby, let’s talk about you and me…

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Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck; a 1909 card scanned by Holly Voley  for the public domain

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck; a 1909 card scanned by Holly Voley for the public domain

Tarot’s Tower does come across as a phallic symbol and in some interpretations it is read as such*; the Star accordingly could be read as female orgasm – and as connection to sephirot Binah and whatnot.

It’s one of the Major Arcanum I have working knowledge of, but can’t connect to on a deeper level, I don’t get it.

Yes, I know it all – the connection to even more confusing Biblical tale of the Babylonian Tower; for an uber-intellectual analysis of the Arcanum and references to anyone you can think of – from Nimrod to Plutarch, see “Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey” by Sallie Nichols… It is a great book on theory of Tarot and I recommend it heartily, but I do doubt it will improve your practical reading skills even the tiniest bit.

It’s been said before that Tarot is a language – a system of signs in semiotic understanding. As such, it does need to be studied both theoretically and practically. To me personally, the two aspects of studying do go hand in hand, otherwise – theory without practice is abstract and dry, whereas practice without theoretic studying tends to turn the discipline into mere fortune-telling. (Nothing too wrong about it, except that on philosophical level it’s diametrically opposed to the doctrine of  free will, whereas in practice it too easily activates the notorious ‘negative self-fulfilling prophecy’, ie. negative predictions do influence sitter’s mind on various levels.)

I am not going to re-digest numerous valid and known interpretations of the Arcanum XVI, those didn’t do much for me. I did learn over years what Tower means in my readings – it’s usually denoting couple of days of stress and upset, but not more than that. (One of the cards I dislike getting way more is the depressing and dis-empowering Hanged Man, that energy for me is way more difficult to handle than shaky and unpredictable Tower.)

What I wanted to share is an unusual and non-deterministic take on the Tower to which I came during last couple of days, since I relocated once again from Montenegro to Moscow.

See, nevertheless we too speak a Slavic language and albeit my country throughout history had close ties with Russia – our own Balkan mentality and Mediterranean way of living has nothing to do with Russian ways. Italian mentality is close to ours – and no wonder, it is a neighboring country to ours and good part of Montenegro was historically ruled by Venetia. We get along with Turks very well – after all – as much as we fought throughout history, we did live in a close proximity for some 400 years and by now we do have a lot in common, taste in foods and similar cuisines among it. But Russians… as much as we love them, we have close to nothing in common with them – neither the system of values, nor the way of life. And it’s tough for me, every time I come here, to adapt and adjust to it all once again – and here we come to the Towerish experience which I wanted to share.

I wrote before on secondary linguistic personality and cultural adaptation ( you can read an excellent material – Russian source translated into English – here http://www.russcomm.ru/eng/rca_biblio/l/leontovich02_eng.shtml ), learning a foreign language is a profoundly transforming and deeply Tower-ish experience.

Leading kabbalistis of our times, such as Shaul Youdkevitch, say that the language we speak molds our personalities – and albeit I am a doctoral candidate in linguistics, I quote kabbalists way more gladly than linguists and philosophers. (After all, during brief 45 min of intro lecture to Kabbalah – which is mostly on what Kabbalah is NOT-  one learns way more than during hours long, boring and pretentious lectures by Slavoy Zizek for example, at least it is so in my experience.) The thing with me is that by now I speak Russian as a native and they don’t figure out easily I am a foreigner; but my attitude is foreign to them and that brings about a lot of confusion. Our society back home is conservative – and so is Russian, but in very different ways; I am from patriarchal culture, but I am not used to patronizing to which I am exposed over here due to my gender – and Russians are not used to women being as assertive as I am, at least not at my age (I look younger my biological age.) Back at home I don’t act from the framework of my gender – I am a responsible person, a member of the community and most often my gender is irrelevant to whatever I am doing or saying. It’s not so in mother Russia. I was told I speak too much for a woman (by a member of the academy of science, mind you.) I am constantly reminded I don’t need bother too much, it’s suffices that my looks are somewhat pleasing to the eye. That bothers me. I wasn’t raised as a girlie girl – I was raised to be a person, not a girl. More so that at my age and with social position I have back home it is ridiculous to be reduced to some kind of decoration… but it is what it is. I learned so far that there isn’t much point in arguing and explaining feminist premises to anyone, people get it or not. What’s important is that in my own microcosms – in academia and at my own Muscovite University it is NOT so; the treatment I – and most other women get out there… that I can’t change, as much as it bothers me. For the sake of the proverbial intercultural communication, you need to adapt- at least seemingly and temporarily – as difficult as it I; so, I learned a little trick, which makes my Towerish adaptation tad easier to bare – I introduced a heavy foreign accent which clearly marks me as an intruder. As soon as I step out from the comfort of Pushkin University, my faked accent distinguishes me as an outsider, a crazy foreigner, Albert Camus’ Meursault – by choice.

Meanwhile, I skyp with my family, so not to lose my mind completely ;)

my mom, my fur baby, my cousin Drago and sis in law Vanja

my mom, my fur baby, my cousin Drago and sis in law Vanja; father dearest on the snapshot bellow (he’s just back from a reception hence the tie & all that jazz ;))

Video call snapshot 48 Video call snapshot 50

Lon Milo Duquette, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot; Weiser Books, 2003 (also Sexual Alchemy of the Thoth Tarot – DVD course by the same author)

 

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